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Dispatches from the Mariposa Folk Festival – Day 3 (Sunday) night time shows

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Old Man Luedecke. Photo by Howard Druckman.

The Pub Stage was as crowded as I’ve ever seen it, with 14 people on the boards for the Cling Clang Rattle Bing Bang, Gonna Make Noise All Day! workshop, featuring Gordie MacKeeman and His Rhythm Boys, Rick Fines, Onion Honey, and Union Duke.

While every band member in rootsy quintet Union Duke has great chops, and their energy is high and contagious, the main attraction is the relentless, unfiltered comedy from drummer/singer/frontperson Matt Warry-Smith. He said that with 14 people onstage, the workshop should have been called A Huge Mistake; kidded us that nobody in the band had ever been kissed; jokingly told some noisy kids in the crowd to shut up; said when his group walks into a legion hall they look like “a bad dodge ball team”; and called his group “the only band on earth that’s written a song about love.” The explosive, raucous “Heavy Wind” and the sweet vocal harmonies on the slow ballad “That Old Feeling” were especially memorable.

Folk/bluegrass/roots quartet Onion Honey are a gang of hot pickers, trading off on guitar, banjo, standup bass, and mandolin. They played two songs about death, but both shared a positive spin, as in the swampy, dark, but optimistic “I’m Gonna Go to Heaven When I Die,” and “Zombie Love Song,” in which they sing, “I’m gonna love you till the day I die,” and even appropriately throw in a chorus of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They also generously performed a banger of a bluegrass standard, “Take Your Shoes Off, Moses,” to allow the other musicians onstage the opportunity to solo over the changes.

Onion Honey. Photo by Howard Druckman.

Gordie MacKeeman (with only two of His Rhythm Boys for the workshop) played a song for his father-in-law, the pickle king of PEI; then a country shuffle, with the classic line, “tell me baby now why you been gone so long”; then uncannily imitated a bird with his violin for the old-time fiddle tune, “Listen to the Mockingbird.” And later, as per my Mariposa Night One report, during “Kiss Me Big,” he tap-danced like a madman while playing the fiddle, then continued to do so while playing it behind his back!

Seasoned, Peterborough-based blues singer-songwriter and guitarist Rick Fines was the surprise secret weapon of the workshop. Rick went all-in on slide-guitar blues ‘n’ boogie, slipping a note-for-note quote of Muddy Waters’ solo from “I Can’t be Satisfied” into his own excellent “Six Doors Down” (where a blues band is playing so well, he never wants to sleep). His slide solo on John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” (where he jokingly compared John Lee’s voice to that of his mother) was a burning, rip-snortin’ grease fire, allowing most everybody onstage to solo, and his borrowed advice that “you gotta let that boy boogie-woogie” was both heartfelt and fitting.

Gordy MacKeeman. Photo by Howard Druckman.

I made it to the Estelle Klein Stage in time to catch most of the Stories About Songs and Songs About Stories workshop, featuring Donovan Woods, Loryn Taggart, Irish Mythen, and Rose Cousins. Author David McPherson, who’s written books about Toronto venues The Horseshoe Tavern and Massey Hall, was going to tell the stories, but wisely chose to let the musicians shine instead, correctly assuming that the audience was there more to hear the songs.

Donovan Woods shines in an intimate setting like this, where his hushed voice has the chance to really cast a spell over an audience. “When Our Friends Come Over,” co-written with Madi Diaz, found him singing about a couple whose partners are better able to appreciate each other in the presence of a second couple. The sound cut out for a minute, but the crew quickly got it back, and the audience stayed with him all the way. “Whatever Keeps You Going” was its usual great self. Donovan played a new, unnamed song, that isn’t even on his new album (out Friday July 12), with a chorus of “you don’t know me anymore.”

Loryn Taggart played a new song, “Deirdre,” for the first time, about a very close friend of hers who died a year ago at a young age. She was grieving, and it was clearly difficult for her to get through it, but she kept on and managed. Before the song, she fondly recalled being invited by Donovan to open a gig for him in Creemore, ON – three days before it was happening – and having Deirdre drive her part of the way there from Montreal, where Loryn was living at the time. “In My Company” was another highlight, written as a response to a conversation at the end of her very first tour, as an excited young woman of 17, when one of the older musicians told her she was “too much” for being so happy to be there. Loryn later realized that comment was about himself, not her.

Donovan Woods. Photo by Howard Druckman.

Firebrand performer and fine singer-songwriter Irish Mythen shared her tough, hearty music with us, playing exhilarating performances of her classics — like “Souvenirs,” which compares the psychological wall between Northern and Southern Ireland to the former physical one between East and West Germany (“No Germans were hurt in the making of this song, she joked), and “Free Piano,” using the metaphor of repairing a battered old instrument to compare to the possibility of personal redemption for us all.

Rose Cousins, at the piano, played slow, soft, sad songs that pulled at our heartstrings, including an unreleased, untitled one where the chorus repeated the word “sister,” and a lovely version of “Grace” that inspired a warm, gentle singalong.

Then it was back to the Pub Stage for the Impulsive, Capricious, and Melodramatic workshop, featuring Ben Caplan, Old Man Luedecke, Jiggity James, James Gray, and Billianne.

Jiggity James and his two side musicians (bass and second guitar/mandolin) offered good, solid, well-crafted songs and sang them well. One of the slower ones had a beautiful flamenco acoustic guitar sound. That said, it’s pretty hard to compete onstage with sparkplug performers like Gordy. I’m sorry to have missed his own full set, which would have been a better context in which to appreciate his music.

Jiggity James. Photo by Howard Druckman.

With his big, rich, deep voice, James Gray was a hit with the audience, as he sang “Think About Me” with Ben Caplan adding some sympatico organ. James’ regular bassist John Sloan borrowed the standup bass from Jiggity James’ band to add to “Boiled Frogs,” a great metaphor for the complacency of human beings in the face of climate change.

Billianne is a 21-year-old from Milton, ON, whose music has gone viral; she’s been given the seal of approval from Taylor Swift, P!nk, and The Lumineers; premiered her song “Daydream” live on NBC’s The TODAY Show; and earned more than 65 million Spotify streams. Making her Mariposa debut, armed with only her acoustic-guitar fingerpicking skills and her sweet, clear voice, she sang a compelling version of the song that broke it all open for her – “Simply The Best” (the one written and performed by Noah Reid on Schitt’s Creek, not the Tina Turner song). A newer one, “Getting a Little Older,” provided the opportunity for a singalong, one that the young and unassuming artist genuinely appreciated.

Old Man Luedecke pointed out that the title of the workshop was in fact a line from Schitt’s Creek. “I do my research,” he joked. Sticking to the banjo, the always charming, gently self-deprecating Luedecke inspired an unsolicited clap-along with his mild but rolling song “I’m Fine (I am, I am)” – which he said was about getting falling-down drunk, though not written from personal experience. We all daydream sometimes about being financially more secure, so it wasn’t hard for the crowd to sing along to “Easy Money.”

Photo by Howard Druckman.

Trying to keep with the theme of the workshop, Ben Caplan decided to try an old song that fit, one he hasn’t played in a while, and took the risk of looping a part on his keyboard – something he rarely does. It went great, with the spooky Tom Waits cabaret of “Deliver Me” winning over the crowd right away. He later borrowed James Gray’s guitar for “I Got Me A Woman,” introducing it by saying there are three things that release endorphins the most: sex, chocolate, and singing with other people. Which, of course, inspired all of his onstage companions, and the crowd, to echo the end of each line in the chorus.

On the Lightfoot Stage, playing with his band to a larger crowd, Donovan Woods – as he always does – joked self-deprecatingly about his situation. Playing the first mainstage set of the day at 5:00m p.m., Donovan deadpanned about being on playlists like Dinner Hour – and also, Rainy Afternoon, and Coffee House. He said that he’s often identified as a songwriter’s songwriter, “which means I drive a Toyota Cressida,” and that his new album comes out Friday but was available here in the merch tent, because “I’m the president of my record company, so I gave myself permission to do it.” He broke it down to just his voice and guitar for “Man Made Lake,” and an excellent new one, “I’m Around,” then brought out Rose Cousins to sing harmony for the song they recorded together, “I Ain’t Ever Loved No One Like That.” He played “Back for the Funeral,“ maybe the best song, and certainly the most concise one he’s ever written. It occurred to me that Donovan is such a quiet singer onstage, you have to lean in to best appreciate him, so it’s harder for him to reach a larger, scattered, outdoor audience, and he tends to work better in more intimate circumstances, or soft-seat theatres. Back with the band, “Portland, Maine” and “Next Year” were nonetheless great.

Bruce Cockburn. Photo by Howard Druckman.

No doubt the reason many attendees were here for the third day of the 2024 fest was to see Bruce Cockburn perform and receive his Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame Award. Tom Power introduced Bruce’s set by recalling the story of him at Mariposa in 1968, replacing an ailing Neil Young on the mainstage, which helped kick-start his career. The 79-year-old Bruce may have taken the stage hunched over and using walking sticks, but his singing and playing are undiminished by age or infirmity. Whether imitating a trumpet with his mouth on the new song “King of the Bolero”; earnestly delivering his new save-our-environment plea “To Keep The World We Know” on dulcimer; fingerpicking his old folk-blues gem “Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long”; or running through classic hits and audience favourites like “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” “Pacing the Cage,” and “Wondering Where The Lions Are,” Bruce still requires nothing more than his voice and his instrument to knock our socks off.

The presentation of the Hall of Fame Award followed Bruce’s set, with heartfelt introductions by Mariposa’s Pam Carter, CBC Radio host Tom Power, and Bruce’s friend, sometime guitarist, and sometime producer, Colin Linden. That was followed by a video of congratulatory messages from Murray McLauchlan, The Sheepdogs, Max Kerman of Arkells, Ron Sexsmith and Jann Arden. Tom then presented the plaque to Bruce, Pam gave him his flowers, and he seemed pleased and just a little embarrassed. He was joined by a host of performers for a full-band encore of “Waiting for a Miracle” and “I Don’t Want to Say Goodnight” with Colin on electric guitar; Tom Power, Tom and Thomson Wilson, Rose Cousins, Donovan Woods, and The Good Lovelies on vocals; Gary Craig on drums; John Dymond on bass; and Ken Whitley on accordion.

As Tom Power said in his tribute, “The right song at the right moment can change your life.” Surely Bruce’s songs have done that for people, and as Tom continued, “that’s a gift.”

Bruce Cockburn. Photo by Howard Druckman.

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